In November 2020, voters in five more states approved cannabis ballot measures. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota approved legalizing and regulating cannabis for adults, while Mississippi and South Dakota voters approved compassionate medical cannabis programs. Meanwhile, Tennessee is one of only 14 states that has not even authorized medical cannabis. Tennessee is also one of only 19 states that still penalize simple possession of cannabis with jail time — possession of a half ounce or less is punishable by nearly a year of incarceration.
While Tennessee voters overwhelmingly support both medical cannabis and legalization, Tennessee doesn’t have a voter initiative process. Only elected officials have the power to change state law. Although lawmakers introduced a bipartisan medical cannabis bill in 2020, it died in committee — as has happened many times in past years.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) expressed reluctance to take up the issue, saying, “It's against federal law. And so, until that changes it's hard to have a discussion.” And Gov. Bill Lee (R) said he wants to “explore alternatives before we go there.”
Marijuana, for both medical and recreational uses, is not legal in Tennessee. However, there is an exception that allows the use of high-CBD, low-THC cannabis oil for seizure patients.
Possession and cultivation both remain illegal. Possession of any amount is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 11 months, 29 days in prison and up to a $2,500 fine. Cultivation of 10 plants or less is a felony, punishable by one to six years in prison, and the penalties increase significantly for each additional plant being grown.
Until 2016, third and subsequent convictions for the possession of marijuana were felonies, punishable by one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000. But in 2016, the legislature reduced that penalty to a misdemeanor, so people convicted of non-violent possession of most drugs will no longer suffer the stigma of a lifelong felony record.
The state is blocking decriminalization. Meanwhile, the two largest cities in Tennessee – Memphis and Nashville – both passed ordinances in 2016 that gave an officer the discretion to charge someone with a civil infraction for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
However, the legislature passed and then-Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill that repealed those local marijuana decriminalization laws. The bill said, “state government law preempts local government enactments with respect to the regulation of and appropriate sanctions for conduct involving drugs and other similar substances.” Now, with dozens of new lawmakers and a new governor, it’s time to renew the call for statewide reform. Please ask your legislators to support replacing criminal penalties with civil fines for simple possession.
ACLU study shows racially disparate marijuana enforcement
An ACLU report found that in 2018 Black individuals were arrested at more than three times the rate of white individuals in Tennessee, despite the fact that both races consume marijuana at about the same rate.
While legalization does not eliminate disparities, it dramatically reduces the total number of cannabis arrests — and thus the damage done by unequal enforcement. Encouragingly, five of the seven states with the lowest disparities had previously enacted legalization laws.
1981: In 1981, HB 314 created a therapeutic research program — which was operational — for cancer chemotherapy or radiology or glaucoma (marijuana or THC). The program was administered by a Patient Qualification Review Board within the Board of Pharmacy, which was authorized to contract with the federal government for marijuana. The program was repealed by SB 1818 in 1992.
2015: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed SB 280 into law, against his earlier opposition. The bill legalized the possession and use of marijuana to treat a limited number of severe conditions, including epilepsy. The bill has no provisions for legal sale, thus requiring patients to acquire the drug outside the state of Tennessee; possession of CBD oil without proof that it was obtained legally outside of Tennessee is a misdemeanor.
2016: Tennessee tweaked its ineffective low-THC law by enacting HB 2144 on May 20, 2016. The law provides that patients may possess CBD oils with no more than 0.9% THC if they have “a legal order or recommendation” for the oil and they or an immediate family member have been diagnosed with epilepsy by a Tennessee doctor.
2017: The legislature enacted HB 1164, modifying Tennessee’s industrial hemp law to allow the production of hemp with 0.3% THC or less. The law requires hemp growers to be licensed by the Department of Agriculture. It also provides that hemp is not marijuana under the state’s controlled substances act if it is either (a) viable and possessed by a licensed hemp grower, or (b) nonviable and is procured in accordance with department rules.